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A rift in Ukrainian leadership

Feb 9, 2024 | The View From Here - Walter Kish, Featured

The news from Ukraine this past week was dominated by strong rumours that President Zelensky wants to dismiss Ukraine’s popular armed forces commander-in-chief General Zaluzhnyi. This may come as a surprise to many people, but rumours of a rift between the two have been growing for some time now, and I have recently suspected that such a move may be in offing.

The general is without a doubt quite popular with Ukrainians both at home and in the diaspora for his obvious successes in stymying the Russians over the past two years, a popularity that is said to exceed that of President Zelensky himself. However, a confluence of circumstances has arisen that is pushing Zelensky towards the decision to replace him. The most often quoted reason is, of course, the fact that the long-awaited “spring offensive” begun earlier this year has failed to meet initial expectations of a breakthrough. The Ukrainian forces have made few real gains, and the situation on the front lines has effectively reached a stalemate, something which Zaluzhnyi has come to admit, though President Zelensky refuses to accept.

One can identify a number of reasons for this stalemate. One of them is the fact that Zaluzhnyi is particularly determined to minimize the number of casualties to his forces, and as a result has resorted to tactics that may be said to be overly cautious and less than bold. The Russians, needless to say, have no such concern over the number of their soldiers that are killed and wounded. While Zaluzhnyi may be commended for being protective of his troops, a point that makes him quite popular in the ranks, history has shown that great victories often go to the bold and not to the cautious. I am sure that General Eisenhower understood that the D-Day invasion would prove to be quite costly in terms of casualties, yet he made the difficult decision to proceed in any case. The same is true for the generals that waged the extremely bloody campaigns in the Pacific against the Japanese.

One should understand that the Russians have no issues in conscripting as many hundreds of thousands or even millions of soldiers as they need. They may become cannon fodder, but I am sure that Putin and his generals care not one whit about how many Russians are killed in the war. Zaluzhnyi and Zelensky have no such freedom of action, particularly in this day and age when every gory detail of combat is captured and broadcast on the Internet and the media on a daily basis.

This has led to a corollary reason that also contributes to the rift, and that is that Zaluzhnyi is now demanding a new wave of conscription that would add another 500,000 soldiers to the Ukrainian armed forces. Such a move, though undoubtedly necessary, would prove to be politically unpopular, and that has been obvious from the amount of opposition it has been facing from many Ukrainian politicians including Zelensky.

No doubt, the lack of more tangible progress in the war can also be attributed to the fact that Ukraine’s allies have fallen grievously short in supplying the Ukrainian forces of much needed military hardware and supplies, including artillery shells, advanced fighter planes, air defense systems and longer-range missiles. Nevertheless, though this might be true, in war success is the only thing that counts.

There have also been reports that Zelensky is not pleased that Zaluzhnyi has at times made what he considers to be “political” comments, something that Zelensky considers outside the general’s purview. There have also been some highly publicized instances where Zaluzhnyi has seemed to contradict or been at odds with comments Zelensky has made about the conduct of the war. All this may have led Zelensky to believe that Zaluzhnyi may have political ambitions of replacing him in the future, something that he would find hard to accept during a time of war.

So far, most of the “rift” between the two has stayed in the background, as both of them have tried hard to show a united front in public. However, more and more signs that the two are not in synch have begun appearing in public leading one to suspect that where there is smoke there must be fire.

One should understand that it is entirely the prerogative of President Zelensky to keep or dismiss Zaluzhnyi as he deems fit. It would not be an easy decision to make, and it would undoubtedly have significant consequences, but decisions in times of war are never easy.
As for my opinion, I am reluctant to side with either Zelenskyi or Zaluzhnyi, as I am sure that I do not know the whole picture and am in no position to render judgment when I do not know all the facts of the matter.

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